Small acts. Big results.

1: Getting better at getting better is what RiseWithDrew is all about.

Monday through Thursday, we explore ideas from authors, thought leaders, and exemplary organizations. On Friday, I share something we are doing at PCI in our quest to earn a spot on Fortune magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work For.

Want to feel better? Enjoy life more? Have better relationships? Be healthier?

At PCI, we kicked off 2022 with an “Acts of Kindness” challenge. The research shows “happiness interventions” like this one boost subjective well-being.  

How does it work? It’s super simple. We select one day each week, and we perform five acts of kindness, all in the same day. It doesn’t matter if the acts are big or small, but it is optimal to perform a variety of acts. The actions do not need to be for the same person. And, the person doesn’t even have to be aware of them.

Examples include helping our spouse cook dinner, doing something for someone in our family, helping a colleague with a piece of work, visiting an elderly relative, or writing a thank you letter.  

Simple stuff. Small acts.

After each act, we take a few minutes to write down what we did AND how it made us feel—just a sentence or two. We might also team up with someone else and share what we did and the feelings associated with doing the kindness acts.

The results are striking. Acts like these “promote feelings of connection with others and may trigger positive feedback loops within one’s relationships,” Kristin Layous writes in the Handbook of Wise Interventions. “People induced into a positive mood are also better workers in a variety of ways. They set higher goals, persevere at challenging tasks longer, complete a greater amount of work with no decline in quality, and come up with more mutually beneficial solutions in negotiations.”

There are also benefits to our physical health. “Specifically, participants who engage in happiness interventions (vs. comparison conditions) have reported better sleep duration and sleep quality, decreased diastolic blood pressure and inflammation, and healthier eating,” Kristin notes.

For the next four weeks, join us! One day each week. Five acts of kindness.  

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Reflection: What surprises me about this research?

Action: Join us in our “Acts of Kindness” challenge. One day each week for the next four weeks, perform five acts of kindness, all five on the same day. Keep track of what you do and how it makes you feel.

What the scientifically illiterate public doesn’t understand

Consider this: we need less than a third of the land to generate the same amount of food today vs. 50 years ago.  

“Transgenic crops are being developed with high yields, lifesaving vitamins, tolerance of drought and salinity, resistance to disease, pests, and spoilage, and reduced need for land, fertilizer, and plowing,” writes Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now.

Incredible. And yet, not everyone is happy about all this progress.

“Like all advances, the Green Revolution came under attack as soon as it began,” writes Steven. “High-tech agriculture, the critics said, consumes fossil fuels and groundwater, uses herbicides and pesticides, disrupts traditional subsistence agriculture, is biologically unnatural, and generates profits for corporations.”

Steven’s conclusion? “Given that it saved a billion lives and helped consign major famines to the dustbin of history, this seems to me like a reasonable price to pay.”

He notes: “Hundreds of studies, every major health and science organization, and more than a hundred Nobel laureates have testified to their safety. . . [yet] traditional environmentalist groups, with what the ecology writer Stewart Brand has called their ‘customary indifference to starvation,’ have prosecuted a fanatical crusade to keep transgenic crops from people—not just from ‘whole-food gourmets’ in rich countries but from poor farmers in developing ones.”

Steven believes environmental groups like these are committed to “the sacred yet meaningless” value of “naturalness,” which leads them to denounce “genetic pollution” and “playing with nature” and to advocate for “real food” based on “ecological agriculture”. 

The real issue? The “scientifically illiterate public” does not understand the actual problem being solved. The consequences are dire. “I daresay the environmental movement has done more harm with its opposition to genetic engineering than with any other thing we’ve been wrong about,” Stewart observes. “We’ve starved people, hindered science, hurt the natural environment, and denied our own practitioners a crucial tool.”

The opposition to transgenic crops has been “perniciously effective in the part of the world that could most benefit from it.” Steven notes. “Sub-Saharan Africa has been cursed by nature with thin soil, capricious rainfall, and a paucity of harbors and navigable rivers, and it never developed an extensive network of roads, rails, or canals.

“Adoption of transgenic crops, both those already in use and ones customized for Africa, grown with other modern practices such as no-till farming and drip irrigation, could allow Africa to leapfrog the more invasive practices of the first Green Revolution and eliminate its remaining undernourishment.”

Hard-core environmentalists seem to fail to consider that innovation does not standstill. We’re not only getting better. We are getting better at getting better. “The beauty of scientific progress is that it never locks us into a technology but can develop new ones with fewer problems than the old ones,” Steven observes.

That’s the genius of innovation.

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Reflection: What do I find interesting or compelling about the information above?  

Action: Discuss with a friend or colleague.

No new farmland needed?

1: The world has reached “peak farmland,” the environmental scientist Jesse Ausubel has estimated. We may never again need as much as we use today.

This reality is very good news for the planet, Steven Pinker writes in Enlightenment Now: “Despite their bucolic charm, farms are biological deserts which sprawl over the landscape at the expense of forests and grasslands. Now that farms have receded in some parts of the world, temperate forests have been bouncing back.”

This phenomenon is happening during a time of significant population growth. In 1975, there were roughly 4 billion human beings on the planet. Today, we are nearing 8 billion.

2: What explains this welcome revelation? Agricultural efficiency. Yesterday, we looked at the impact of the chemical breakthrough of pulling nitrogen out of the air and turning it into fertilizer on an industrial scale.  

Another “giga-lifesaver” is Norman Borlaug, who in the 1950s and ’60s “outsmarted evolution to foment the Green Revolution in the developing world,” notes Steven. “Plants in nature invest a lot of energy and nutrients in woody stalks that raise their leaves and blossoms above the shade of neighboring weeds and of each other. Like fans at a rock concert, everyone stands up, but no one gets a better view.”

From a farmer’s viewpoint, “not only do tall wheat plants waste energy in inedible stalks, but when they are enriched with fertilizer, they collapse under the weight of the heavy seedhead,” Steven writes.

Norman invested years of “mind-warpingly tedious work” to cross thousands of strains of wheat and then selected the successors with dwarfed stalks, high yields, resistance to rust, and an insensitivity to day length. 

The result? He evolved strains of wheat with many times the yield of their ancestors. Then, he did the same with corn and rice.

“By combining these strains with modern techniques of irrigation, fertilization, and crop management,” Steven writes, Norman “turned Mexico and then India, Pakistan, and other famine-prone countries into grain exporters almost overnight. The Green Revolution continues–it has been called ‘Africa’s best-kept secret’.”

The bottom line? Today we need less than a third of the land to generate the same amount of food. 

“Between 1961 and 2009, the amount of land used to grow food increased by 12 percent, but the amount of food that was grown increased by 300 percent,” Steven writes. “If agricultural efficiency had remained the same over the past fifty years while the world grew the same amount of food, an area the size of the United States, Canada, and China combined would have had to be cleared and plowed.”

3: Another impact of all of these agricultural innovations is a steep drop in the cost of food.  

“In the United States in 1901, an hour’s wages could buy around three quarts of milk; a century later, the same wages would buy sixteen quarts,” notes Steven. “The amount of every other foodstuff that can be bought with an hour of labor has multiplied as well: from a pound of butter to five pounds, a dozen eggs to twelve dozen, two pounds of pork chops to five pounds, and nine pounds of flour to forty-nine pounds.”

More tomorrow.

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Reflection: What surprises me about the data above?

Action: Share this information with a friend or colleague who believes we live in “the worst of times.”

Why was Thomas Malthus so wrong?

1: “Vulnerability to famine appears to have been virtually eradicated” was not supposed to happen.

In 1798 Thomas Malthus famously wrote about the recurring famines of his era, which he believed were inescapable and would only get worse because “population, when unchecked, increases in a geometrical ratio. Subsistence increases only in an arithmetic ratio. A slight acquaintance with numbers will show the immensity of the first power in comparison with the second.”

“The implication was that efforts to feed the hungry would only lead to more misery because they would breed more children who were doomed to hunger in their turn,” writes Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now.

Malthusian thinking returned “with a vengeance” as recently as the 1960s, Steven notes. In 1967 William and Paul Paddock wrote the best-selling Famine 1975!  The following year the biologist Paul R. Ehrlich released The Population Bomb, in which he trumpeted: “the battle to feed all of humanity is over,” predicting that by the 1980s, sixty-five million Americans and four billion other people would starve to death.”

What did Paul Ehrlich and other environmentalists recommend? Cutting off food aid to countries they considered “basket cases.”

2: So, where exactly did Malthus’s math go wrong?

We begin by challenging his assumption that population grows in a geometric ratio indefinitely. “Because when people get richer and more of their babies survive, they have fewer babies,” Steven notes.  (See figure 10-1). “Conversely, famines don’t reduce population growth for long. They disproportionately kill children and the elderly, and when conditions improve, the survivors quickly replenish the population.”

As global health expert Hans Rosling observes, “You can’t stop population growth by letting poor children die.”

3: Next, we challenge Malthus’s assumption that the food supply can’t grow geometrically. Actually, knowledge can be applied to “increase the amount of food that can be coaxed out of a patch of land,” Steven notes. 

The most significant innovation of the Industrial Revolution was innovation itself. During the Enlightenment and the Industrial Revolution, human beings began to bend the curve upward to generate more food out of each acre of land.

“Crop rotation and improvements to plows and seed drills were followed by mechanization, with fossil fuels replacing human and animal muscle,” Steven writes. 

In the mid-1800s, it took twenty-five men working a full day to harvest and thresh a ton of grain. Today? One person operating a combine harvester can do it in six minutes.

“But the truly gargantuan boost would come from chemistry,” Steven writes. “In 1909 Carl Bosch perfected a process invented by Fritz Haber which used methane and steam to pull nitrogen out of the air and turn it into fertilizer on an industrial scale. . . Those two chemists top the list of the 20th-century scientists who saved the greatest number of lives in history, with 2.7 billion.”

During the last 100 years, grain yields per hectare have increased dramatically, and prices have plunged. “The savings are mind-boggling,” Steven notes. “If the food grown today had to be grown with pre-nitrogen-farming techniques, an area the size of Russia would go under the plow.”

More tomorrow.

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Reflection: What surprises me about the data above?

Action: Share this information with a friend or colleague who believes we live in “the worst of times.”

Is famine a thing of the past?

1: We certainly have our challenges. We are dealing with a deadly pandemic and with second and third-order effects of that pandemic, including an increase in the murder rate, drug overdoses, and alcoholism.  Recent new stories detail an increase in the number of patients who are being abusive toward nurses and students who are being disruptive in the classroom.

That said, it is easy to miss the forest for the trees.  Because the overall trends about human progress over the past fifty years are incredibly positive.  We’ve experienced incredible gains in worldwide prosperity and corresponding declines in poverty, expansive breakthroughs in health care, a tremendous increase in human longevity, and a dramatic reduction in infant mortality.

Another area of incredible progress? Gains against famine, starvation, and undernourishment.

Famine has been part of the human condition since the beginning of recorded time. “The Hebrew Bible tells of seven lean years in Egypt; the Christian Bible has Famine as one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse,” writes Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now. “Well into the 19th century, a crop failure could bring sudden misery even to privileged parts of the world.”

Historians such as Fernand Braudel have documented that premodern Europe and other parts of the world suffered from famines every few decades.

Fernand recounts the reporting of a Dutch merchant who was in India during a famine in 1630–31: “Men abandoned towns and villages and wandered helplessly. It was easy to recognize their condition: eyes sunk deep in the head, lips pale and covered with slime, the skin hard, with the bones showing through, the belly nothing but a pouch hanging down empty. . . Many hundred thousands of men died of hunger, so that the whole country was covered in corpses lying unburied, which caused such a stench that the whole air was filled and infected with it.”

In The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700–2100, economist Robert Fogel writes: “The energy value of the typical diet in France at the start of the eighteenth century was as low as that of Rwanda in 1965, the most malnourished nation for that year.

“Hungry Europeans titillated themselves with food pornography, such as tales of Cockaigne, a country where pancakes grew on trees, the streets were paved with pastry, roasted pigs wandered around with knives in their backs for easy carving, and cooked fish jumped out of the water and landed at one’s feet.”

2: Today we live in Cockaigne, Steven observes. In the developed world, obesity, not famine, is our greatest food challenge.

In recent decades, the developing world has also experienced incredible gains against starvation. “In spite of burgeoning numbers, the developing world is feeding itself,” Steven writes. “This is most obvious in China, whose 1.3 billion people now have access to an average of 3,100 calories per person per day, which, according to US government guidelines, is the number needed by a highly active young man.”

In the continent of Africa, the average number of calories consumed a day is 2,600. In India, it is 2,400, the number recommended for a highly active young woman or an active middle-aged man.

3: The trends regarding undernourishment show a consistent pattern: “Hardship everywhere before the 19th century, rapid improvement in Europe and the U.S. over the next two centuries, and in recent decades, the developing world catching up,” Steven notes.

The economist Stephen Devereux, writing in the year 2000, summed up the world’s progress during the 20th century: “Vulnerability to famine appears to have been virtually eradicated from all regions outside Africa. . . . Famine as an endemic problem in Asia and Europe seems to have been consigned to history. The grim label ‘land of famine’ has left China, Russia, India and Bangladesh, and since the 1970s has resided only in Ethiopia and Sudan.

“If this trend continues, the 20th century should go down as the last during which tens of millions of people died for lack of access to food.”

More tomorrow.

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Reflection: What are my assumptions about human progress?

Action: Spend some time looking at the metrics in the Our World in Data

Is the annual performance review dead?

Getting better at getting better is what RiseWithDrew is all about.

Monday through Thursday we explore ideas from authors, thought leaders, and exemplary organizations.  On Friday, I share something we are doing at PCI in our quest to earn a spot on Fortune magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work For.

Traditionally, January has been the month of the “annual review.”  What word best describes the emotions around this process?

Dread.

Each leader dreads the hours it takes to prepare the reviews.  The People Department dreads the crushing amount of time required to review the reviews.  And, almost no one looks forward to the sometimes awkward conversations which are jammed into the calendar to meet the deadline.  

There is a better way.  

At PCI, we utilize the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS) as a framework to help manage our business.  One of the key elements of EOS is the Quarterly Conversation or QC.  Between now and the end of the month, every associate in our organization will meet with their leader to review how things are going.

Two things about a QC:  First, it’s quarterly.  Checking in once a year doesn’t work.  If things are going well, we need to be recognizing our top performers regularly.  The statistics show people are starved for recognition and praise.  

If things aren’t going well, the issues need to be addressed.  Now.  

The quarterly rhythm ensures there is an on-going communication between the associate and their direct report.

Second: the QC is intended to be informal.  The agenda is simple:

1: CORE VALUES: Prior to the QC, the individual and the manager both review the five PCI values and give a ranking around how the associate’s behaviors match each of the PCI values. The idea is to discuss specific actions or behaviors over the last 90 days where the associate did or perhaps did not go above and beyond in any core value.

“Did you see them behave in a way that was contrary to a core value?” suggests Mike Kotsis in his article, “A Simple Habit to Crank Up Accountability at Your Company.  “Bring it to their attention and seek to understand what happened.  It can be uncomfortable to go there, but if you don’t, you’ll be left to make assumptions.  And worse yet, they may not even realize that something was wrong.”  

A good approach?  Simply ask: “Help me understand—this is what I thought I saw.  Can you give me some insight to what happened?”

2:  ROLES AND RESPONSIBILITIES: Again, prior the review, both people review the previously agreed upon 3-5 crucial roles and responsibilities for the position and rank whether the person: “Gets it,” “Wants it” and “Has the capacity to do it.” 

“Have them explain in their own words how they’re doing with each [of the five roles],” writes Mike.  “Give feedback on how you see it.  Compliment them in the areas where they’re excelling, and address any gaps that you see.

3: ROCKS:  Each of our teams establish 90-day priorities for each person on the team.  What are the most important projects or initiatives each person is responsible for?  During the QC, we check in on their progress.  Are we on track?  Are there obstacles in the way?  Do we know what success looks like? 

4: WHAT’S WORKING / WHAT’S NOT WORKING: This agenda item is where a majority of the time is spent during the QC.  Again, both people prepare in advance a list of what’s working and what isn’t.  Then, together, we discuss each issue and agree upon next steps. 

The manager’s primary role is to listen.  A good rule of thumb is to talk no more than 25% of the time.  Ask: “What do you think you could do to improve, and how do you think I could help?”

5: FEEDBACK:  Ask: “How am I doing?  Give me some feedback.  What could I do to be more effective as your leader?”

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Reflection: Is our performance review process working?

Action: Discuss with my team.

How to WOOP! our way to success

Aristotle tells us: To flourish as human beings, we need targets. We need goals.

This week we’re reviewing some of the key lessons from Brian Johnson’s Optimize Coach course. Today’s lesson? Happy people have projects. That’s step one.  

In choosing goals, we want to aim for something just beyond our comfort zone. If it’s too easy, that’s boring. If it’s way too challenging, we lose interest. It’s the “Goldilocks” lesson: not too easy and not too hard.  

Next, we need to focus on what we control – i.e. the process, not the outcome. Most of the time in life, we don’t control the end result. People who don’t realize this reality are often frustrated and disappointed. A better strategy is to focus on what we control: our effort, our energy, our learning, our focus.

Today’s big idea is “WOOP” – another of Brian’s mnemonics. WOOP stands for:

W…ish

O…utcome

O…bstacles

P…lan

Wish is the vision, the desired outcome. Where we want to go.  

Outcome refers to the outcomes we will experience—the “why” – the benefits of the wish.  

The second O stands for obstacles – anticipating what could go wrong. We take our goal and rub it up against reality. What’s in the way? What could derail us?

I’m a goal-setter. I’ve been setting goals and making plans for years. In the past, I neglected to consider the likely challenges I would face. Brian tells us this is a crucial step in the process.  

“P’ stands for our Plan: How we will overcome the obstacles we may face.

The research shows when we anticipate and plan for the obstacles, we get better results.   

Good stuff.

So, now we have a clear goal and our WOOP plan. Now it’s time to get busy. There’s a lesson here, too. Too often, we think we need big wins. Right away.  

Not so fast. Happiness comes from micro-wins sustained over a period of time. Set a target… Hit it… Celebrate!… Repeat…

Final lesson: Don’t skip the celebration. Why? Mindset. Again. Turns out there’s real power in pausing and saying: “That’s like me. That’s what I do. I win!”  

Because success begets success.  

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Reflection: What’s my #1 goal for 2022?

Action: WOOP it.

What is courage? And how does it impact our ability to learn?

So, what exactly is courage? Is it the absence of fear?  

No, philosopher Brian Johnson tells us.  It’s feeling the fear…  And then getting on with it.  Doing what needs to be done.  

Brian argues this is the mindset to cultivate as we show up in life. Yes, there will be challenges. Expect obstacles, he tells us. Then, get on with it. Feel the fear. Then, do what needs to be done.  

Doing so requires courage, which Aristotle tells us is the most important of all human virtues.  

Our mindset determines how we experience life. An example? Stress. If we think stress is harmful, it is. If we choose to see stress as giving us the energy and motivation to face the situation at hand, it is. How we choose to view stress impacts our experience of stress, writes Kelly McGonigal in her powerful book The Upside of Stress.     

When we find ourselves facing a challenge or obstacle, instead of thinking: “Win or Lose,” we can choose to think: “Win or Learn.” Brian suggests we see ourselves as scientists, wearing lab coats, running experiments, looking for data on what works and what doesn’t. Doing so allows us to approach our mistakes with curiosity. Then, we apply what we learned. Not everything we do will work out beautifully. In fact, few things will… at first. But each time we stumble, we learn.   We improve. We get better.  

Brian gives us a specific strategy to access our courage. Ask: “What’s Important now?” “What needs to get done?” Next, stand up straight. Breathe deeply. Then say: “Bring it on!”  

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Reflection: Consider a current challenge or obstacle. What is my current mindset?   

Action: Ask: “What’s Important now?” “What needs to get done?” Then, stand up straight. Breathe deeply. And say: “Bring it on!”  

How to become anti-fragile “Fall 7.  Rise 8.”  

If Grit author Angela Duckworth were to get a tattoo, these are the words it would say.  Grit, Angela tells us, is a combination of an intense passion and intense persistence.

“Expect challenges” is Rule #1, according to philosopher Brian Johnson.  When life knocks us down, our goal is to challenge ourselves to bounce back.  Quickly.  The most successful people are not those who never fail, but rather those who learn to recover fast.  It turns out bouncing back is a skill we can practice, a skill we can get better at.  

The big learning for today is around the concept of being antifragile. We have a choice, Brian tells us: We can go through life being (1) fragile, i.e. handle with care; (2) resilient, which is our ability to bounce back (a very good thing); or (3) antifragile, which means the more life kicks us around, the stronger we get.  

When we become antifragile everything becomes fuel for our growth.  In time we develop confidence, a deep trust that we can handle whatever life throws at us.  

There’s a great metaphor from nature around how a pearl gets made.

Step one: an irritant, usually a parasite works its way into an oyster shell.  

Step two: as a defense mechanism, a fluid is used to coat the irritant.  In time, layer upon layer of this coating, called ‘nacre’, forms around the irritant

Step three: an incandescent pearl is formed

The example of the pearl is a living illustration of one of Brian’s mantras, OMMS:

O: obstacles

M: make

M: me

S: stronger

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Reflection:  How might I re-frame a current challenge in my life as an opportunity to improve?

Action:  Do it.

Rule #1: Expect Obstacles

Brian Johnson has read and distilled the key learnings from over 500 books as part of his Philosopher’s Notes.

His rule #1?

Expect obstacles and challenges.

It’s a new year. One thing we know for sure? There will be challenges.

Rather than be surprised when obstacles present themselves (and they always do!), Brian encourages us to embrace the challenges we face as opportunities to hone our skills.

Because dealing with challenges is how we get better. The small obstacles are opportunities to practice and get ready for the really big ones. We can think of the big, bad obstacles as a “training partner,” something pushing us to improve.

The opposite approach is to live life feeling entitled. Expecting it to be easy.

That’s dead-end thinking.

A better strategy is to cultivate gratitude. For the good things in our lives – of course. But also for the obstacles and challenges. Because doing battle with these makes us better.

_________________

Reflection: Think about a current challenging situation. What is one thing I am grateful for in it?

Action: Journal about it. Today!

Does structure set you free? Short answer? Yes.

1: Getting better at getting better is what RiseWithDrew is all about.

Monday through Thursday, we explore ideas from authors, thought leaders, and exemplary organizations. On Friday, I share something we are doing at PCI in our quest to earn a spot on Fortune magazine’s 100 Best Companies to Work For.

2: This week we’ve been looking at some of the best practices from Danny Meyer, the renowned restauranteur who operates 18 restaurants in New York City, the most competitive restaurant market in the world.  

As CEO of a large, successful organization, Danny makes time every four weeks to meet with new associates who have started in the prior month.

Like Danny, I also prioritize meeting with all new hires at PCI. Every month, we have our new hires start on the same day, called NotTheTypicalFirstDay@Work during which I spend a majority of my day welcoming everyone to PCI and sharing the key elements of our workplace culture.

3: As CEO, my three most important responsibilities are: (1) fortify our workplace culture; (2) look into the future and identify ways to capitalize on our successes; and (3) strengthen our leadership capabilities across the organization. I am always on the lookout to create frameworks and/or recurring meetings. Today, we will review some of the elements we have in place:

Every five years Rhythms:

o Servant leadership is our leadership philosophy at PCI. Once every five years, all PCI associates are divided into groups to read and discuss The Servant as Leader by Robert Greenleaf.

Annual or Semi-Annual Rhythms:

o One-Day Annual Planning Meeting with our nine-member CEO Council (PCI leadership team): This is a critical part of the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS) where we decide upon our 10-year Vision, 3-year Picture, and one-year Plan.

o Twice a year, we select a book to read and discuss across the organization. All associates are invited (but not required) to participate. For the last several years, one of the books we’ve selected has been on the topic of racial injustice.

o Straight Talk with Drew: Twice a year, I meet with every team in our organization. It’s an opportunity to share information directly, conduct a learning exercise, and lead a discussion of “plusses and deltas” – what’s working and what’s not working. Each team holds me accountable for a minimum of one item on which I pledge to report progress the next time we meet.

o Chairman’s Club Dinner: Annual celebration event for our top salespeople.

Quarterly Rhythms:

o Not The Typical Quarterly Business Meeting (QBM or All-Hands meeting): Once a quarter, we bring all associates together either regionally (pre-COVID) or via zoom (post-COVID) for an All-Hands Meeting where we report on all metrics and recognize top performers and associates who are living our values.

o One-Day Quarterly Planning Meeting: Each quarter, our CEO Council meets to assess our progress against our annual Plan and select our “Big Rocks” or objectives for the upcoming quarter. A crucial part of the EOS process. Note: the annual and Q1 quarterly meetings are held back-to-back, becoming a 2-Day exercise.

o Quarterly Conversations (QCs): Every associate at PCI meets with their direct supervisor once a quarter to discuss what’s working and what’s not working. There is also a discussion about how well the associate lives the five PCI values and their fit within their current role, called “Right Person, Right Seat.”

o Quarterly Board of Directors Meeting: I’m a big believer in having an active board to review financial information and discuss the strategic direction of the firm.

Monthly or Twice Monthly Rhythms:

o Monthly Two-Hour “Same Page Meeting” with myself and our COO. The goal is to surface, discuss, and decide on any outstanding issues, so we present a united front on key issues to the CEO Council and across the organization.

o NotTheTypicalFirstDay@Work: Our on-boarding day. See above.

o Week Two New Hire Training: The second week of our new hire training, I lead a discussion around our values.

o 60-Day Celebration: The new hires gather again 60 days into their tenure with PCI for an afternoon of training and feedback. I kick it off with a one-hour “Knower vs. Learner” training.

o Monthly Trailblazer meeting with all PCI leaders who manage teams. Content is focused on leadership and management training.

o Situational Workshop: Our CEO Council meets twice a month for one hour to discuss two strategic or tactical topics. Content rotates amongst the leadership team. Three times a year, we utilize this meeting to examine (1) What have we learned in the last four months? (2) What requires an urgent response? (3) What resistance should we anticipate/prepare for? (4) Ultimately, how will this learning influence/change our annual Rocks, 3-Year Plan, and 10-Year Vision?

Weekly Rhythms:

o Level 10 (or L10) meeting: Each week, our CEO Council meets for 90 minutes to review key metrics and to IDS (Identify, Discuss, and Solve) any open issues.

Daily Rhythms:

o 10@830 Daily Huddle: 10 minutes at 8:30 am. Every morning we review our purpose, five values, and key metrics. Each day a different department does a two-minute “Expanded News” to share something new on which they are working.

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Reflection: Are there areas or issues in my organization that would benefit from a regular, recurring meeting?  

Action: Discuss with a colleague.

Why Danny Meyer believes we should treat new hires like volunteers

1: Today’s the day.

The new hire we are all excited about starts today. We’ve used our high standards to hire what renowned restaurateur Danny Meyer calls a “51 percenter” someone who has both the technical skills (49%) and the emotional skills (51%) to succeed in their new role.

Now what? How do we ensure we’ve hired the right person, and how do we best onboard them onto their new team?

2: Danny shares two suggestions in his excellent book Setting the Table. Suggestion one: Trailing. “For years, we’ve used a system called ‘trailing’ to test and hone a prospect’s technical skills—the 49 percent—and to begin to assess his or her emotional skills, the 51 percent.”

What is trailing?  

“It is a combination of training and auditioning; it’s rigorous and sometimes awkward,” Danny explains. “We generally keep people on probation until we’ve first observed their behavior within the real environment of the dining room or kitchen, and until we’ve assessed their overall fit with our team.”

At all eighteen of Danny’s New York City restaurants, managers share upfront with candidates they will be “trailed” by a current associate. The process benefits both the organization and the new hire. “We urge those who trail to ask themselves, Is this really the kind of place I’m going to want to spend one-third of my time? Is this place going to challenge me and make me feel fulfilled?”

The trailing process is straightforward. The frontline manager arranges shadowing in each job category. “Most prospective employees go through four, five, or six trails during meal periods and often trail with a different waiter or cook each time. For each trail after the first, there is a specific and increasingly advanced list of what needs to be learned and accomplished during that session,” Danny writes.

Danny sees the practice as a critical element of team-building: “Our training is designed not as a hazing, but as a healthy way to foster a stronger team,” he notes. “Trailers don’t advance to their second trail unless the first trainer recommends this to the manager; they don’t move on to their third unless the second trainer endorses it; and so on. After five or six trails, we end up with a well-trained candidate who has also been endorsed by as many as half a dozen team members.”

3: His next suggestion? As CEO, Danny stays involved and active with new hires. He meets with all new hires once every four weeks. Danny’s first job out of college was working for a presidential campaign managing volunteers. “I have continued to view people who work for me as volunteers. It isn’t that they’ve agreed to work without pay,” Danny writes. He tells them: “I’m aware that you’re all here, on the most basic level, to pay the rent.” He continues: “Just as you need a job, I need people to take orders accurately and to cook wonderful food.”  

Then he shares that he knows each of them could have found a job at any of 200 other very good restaurants for the same pay. “You could all be doing what you do anywhere else,” he says. “But you chose to be with us. You have volunteered to be on our team, and we owe it to you to provide you with much more than just a paycheck in return. We want you to feel certain you have made a wise choice in joining our company. It’s a chance to work at a company where respect and trust are mutual between management and workers, where you can enjoy working alongside and learning from excellent colleagues.”

But most importantly, according to Danny? “Where you can know that your contributions can make every day truly matter.”

More tomorrow.

______________________

Reflection: How might my organization benefit from Danny’s concept of “trailing”?  

Action: Discuss “trailing” with my team before onboarding our next new hire.

How do we make the subjective objective?

 

1: High standards? 

Sure. But the team has been short a person for three weeks. Everyone is working extra hours to get the work out the door. The stress level is high.

The hiring manager finally finds a technically outstanding candidate. Not only can they do the job, but they can start right away. But the potential new hire doesn’t seem to fit the company’s values. The candidate lacks the emotional intelligence to work well with our team and our clients.

Should we pass on the candidate?

“Absolutely,” answers renowned restaurateur Danny Meyer in his terrific book Setting the Table. “I’m not impressed by a candidate’s technical prowess if the meaningful emotional skills aren’t already in place. . . There are a lot of jobs to fill in the restaurant business, and it can be frustrating, especially in a tight labor market, to impose our own stringent limitations on whom we can and can’t hire.” 

In Danny’s experience, the overwhelmingly strong candidate is easy to spot. Same with an underwhelmingly weak candidate. 

“It’s the “whelming” candidate you must avoid at all costs because that’s the one who can and will do your organization the most long-lasting harm. Overwhelmers earn you raves. Underwhelmers either leave on their own or are terminated. Whelmers, sadly, are like a stubborn stain you can’t get out of the carpet. They infuse an organization and its staff with mediocrity; they’re comfortable, and so they never leave; and, frustratingly, they never do anything that rises to the level of getting them promoted or sinks to the level of getting them fired. 

“And because you either can’t or don’t fire them, you and they conspire to send a dangerous message to your staff and guests that “average” is acceptable,” Danny observes.

2: The answer? Don’t settle. At all 18 of Danny’s restaurants, they are steadfast in their efforts to hire only “51 percenters” – associates who are not only technically savvy but also possess the emotional skills to treat clients with the highest level of care. 

Check. But how do we make sure we are hiring 51 percenters? And, as our organization grows, how do we pass this philosophy down to others? How do we make the subjective objective and the implicit explicit? 

Danny has three specific suggestions to teach others how to listen to their gut feelings. He asks his managers “whose intuition and judgment we trust, or they wouldn’t be managers” to consider three hypothetical situations when they are hiring.

3: Situation 1: “Think of someone you know well (a spouse, best friend, parent, sibling) who has an uncanny gift for judging character,” writes Danny. “Imagine that you have invited the prospective employee to your home for dinner with your judge of character. The three of you discuss many things over a two-hour dinner. When the prospect leaves and the door closes behind him or her, what will be the first thing your character judge says? ‘What the hell are you thinking?’ Or, ‘Hire that person immediately!'” 

Because for judges of character, there is no such thing as the color gray. 

Situation 2: “Imagine your keenest rival in business—if you’re the Yankees, say, then it’s the Red Sox. Then imagine that the day you make a job offer to a prospect, he or she calls you back and says, “Thanks, but I just got a great offer from the Red Sox, and I’m taking the job with them.” Is your immediate reaction ‘Crap, we blew it!’ Or, ‘Whew, we’ve dodged a bullet!'” 

Situation 3: Imagine a “core group of customers or other people whose opinions carry special weight for them. In our industry, such a person could be a restaurant critic,” Danny writes. “So, imagine that this person with an especially weighty opinion drops in unannounced to dine, and there is only one table left in the restaurant—a table that will be served by the person you are considering hiring. Is your reaction’ Great!’—or is it ‘Oh, no!'”?

In all three scenarios, if we feel optimistic about the prospect? We are on the right track. If not? It’s time to move on. 

The final critical factor Danny instructs managers to consider? “Do they believe the candidate can become one of the top three performers on our team in his or her job category?  

“If people cannot ever develop into one of our top three cooks, servers, managers, or maître d’s, why would we hire them? How will they help us improve and become champions?”

High standards, indeed.

More tomorrow.

______________________

Reflection: Reflect on a time when our organization “settled” for hiring someone who didn’t have a true passion for excellence. What were the repercussions? 

Action: Journal about the situation above. What are the “lessons learned” I can apply in my life going forward.

What are the five emotional skills all new hires need?

1: When renowned restaurateur Danny Meyer walks into one of his eighteen New York City restaurants, there is one particular thing that brings him delight.

A waiter lifting a wine glass off the table. Holding it up to the light. To check for smudges.

Why? Not because he is an “unreformed smudge freak,” he writes in his book Setting the Table. “But because someone is showing care for a small detail—smaller even than what the average guest may notice.”

This example of personal accountability suggests the waiter has empathy, which is one of the five emotional skills that define what Danny calls a “51 percenter,” the type of person he seeks to hire. “To me, a 51 percenter has five core emotional skills. I’ve learned that we need to hire employees with these skills if we’re to be champions at the team sport of hospitality,” he notes.

2: Skill one is empathy, which he defines as “not just an awareness of what others are experiencing; it’s being aware of, being sensitive to, and caring about how one’s own behavior affects others. We want waiters, for example, who can approach a new table of guests and intuitively sense their needs and agenda. Have they come, for example, to celebrate or to conduct business? Are they here to experience the cuisine, or simply to connect with a colleague over a light meal?”

Yes, guests go out to restaurants to eat, but Danny believes their primary need is to be nurtured. “The most direct and effective way to let our guests know that we’re on their side has always been to field a team that exudes this infectious type of empathy.”

“Optimistic warmth” is skill two. “I want the kind of people on my team who naturally radiate warmth, friendliness, happiness, and kindness. It feels genuinely good to be around them. There’s an upbeat feeling, a twinkle in the eye, a dazzling sparkle from within,” writes Danny. These are the type of people we want to spend our lives with because they make us feel good and inspire us to learn and grow.

Skill three for 51 percenters is intelligence: “Not just ‘smarts’ but rather an insatiable curiosity to learn for the sake of learning,” writes Danny. “A hallmark of our business model is to be improving continually. I need to stock our team with people who naturally crave learning and who want to evolve—people who figure out how each new day can bring rich opportunities to do something even better.”

This desire to learn may present as a broad knowledge of many subjects or a deep understanding of one specific area. “I appreciate it when waiters want to learn more about cooking. I love it when cooks want to learn about wine. I adore it when hosts and reservationists want to learn more about the person behind the name they are greeting on the phone or at the front door,” Danny shares.

Skill four? Work ethic. The natural tendency to do something as well as it can possibly be done. Many things can be taught. “What is impossible to teach is how to care deeply about setting the table beautifully,” Danny notes.

Fifth and finally: Self-awareness and integrity, which Danny believes are linked: “It takes integrity to be self-aware and to hold oneself accountable for doing the right thing.”

51-percenters are aware of their mood and its impact on others. “No one can possibly be upbeat and happy all the time. But personal mastery demands that team members be aware of their moods and keep them in check,” Danny observes. “If a staff member is having personal trouble, and wakes up angry, nervous, depressed, or anxious, he or she needs to recognize and deal with the mood. It does not serve anyone’s purposes to project that mindset into the work environment or onto one’s colleagues.

“We call that ‘skunking.’ A skunk may spray a predator when it feels threatened, but everyone else within two miles has to smell the spray, and these others may assume that the skunk actually had it in for them,” he notes. “It’s not productive to work with a skunk, and it’s not enjoyable to be served by one either. In a business that depends on the harmony or an ensemble, a skunk’s scent is toxic.”

3: Danny’s critical insight: Don’t spend time training or teaching people to act like a 51-percenter. Hire people who already are. 

“It may seem implicit in the philosophy of enlightened hospitality that the employee is constantly setting aside personal needs and selflessly taking care of others,” Danny notes. “But the real secret of its success is to hire people to whom caring for others is, in fact, a selfish act. . . Their source of energy is rarely depleted.

“In fact, the more opportunities [51 percenters] have to care for other people, the better they feel,” writes Danny. 

More tomorrow.

______________________

Reflection: How do the qualities of a 51 percenter translate into my organization? How might we identify these qualities in the people we seek to hire?

Action: Discuss with a colleague.

Why hire 51 Percenters?

1: Imagine dining at an expensive restaurant.  

“Everything is delivered perfectly, cleared perfectly, decanted perfectly,” writes Danny Meyer in Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business.

Yet, something is missing.  

“It’s not fun. It’s not sincere. There’s no soul. It’s a perfectly executed but imperfect experience,” he writes.

“It’s remarkable to me how many businesses shine brightly when it comes to acing the tasks but emanate all the warmth of a cool fluorescent light,” Danny observes. “That explains how a flawless four-star restaurant can actually attract far fewer loyal fans than a two-or three-star place with soul.”

2: Danny and his team have created some of New York’s most beloved restaurants, cafes, and bars (currently 18 venues). What is one of the biggest reasons behind their incredible track record in the most demanding, most competitive restaurant market in the world?

Hire 51 percenters.

When hiring, most organizations focus on skills and experience. And certainly, technical excellence is important. 49 percent important.  

What’s even more important? 51 percent important? Innate emotional skills and hospitality.

“I first learned this concept of ’51 percent’ from the dynamic restaurateur Rich Melman of Chicago,” Danny writes. It’s “now it is a cornerstone of my business. . . I tell new employees right off the bat that for their salary review, 51 percent of any raise or bonus is set by how they’re faring at the emotional skills necessary to do their job well, and 49 percent is tied to technical performance. That’s the perfect balance for us, and it’s the currency of our company.”

51 percenters are the secret ingredient to creating a business with soul.

“Somehow in our society a mindset took hold many years ago, whereby the only way for a restaurant (or any business, for that matter) to be taken seriously was to act serious,” Danny reflects.

He takes a different tact: “I encourage my staff to express and reveal their humanness, learn from their mistakes, lighten up, and relax. This is a contribution to the dialogue on hospitality that we work at quite consciously,” writes Danny. “A good sense of humor—about oneself, one’s business, and life in general—goes a long way toward fostering good feelings to accompany excellent performance.”

The idea of hiring people with the emotional skills to their job well is similar to the concept of Emotional Intelligence or EQ which is described as our “ability to recognize and understand emotions in [ourselves] and others, and [our] ability to use this awareness to manage [our] behavior and relationships,” write Dr. Travis Bradberry and Dr. Jean Greaves in their book, Emotional Intelligence 2.0

Does EQ have an impact on our professional success?  “The short answer is: a lot!” write Travis and Jean.  “EQ is so critical to success that it accounts for 58 percent of performance in all types of jobs.  It’s the single biggest predictor of performance in the workplace and the strongest driver of leadership and personal excellence.”

Being a 51 percenter is a similar concept to EQ.  What does Danny believe is the one thing all 51 percenters share?

They are driven by a desire to be the very best at what they do. “The ability to derive enjoyment from the pursuit of excellence is the best way to measure the team’s 51-49 ratio, and it allows me to feel assured that we’re doing our job as well as we can,” Danny observes.

3: Why is this approach so important? Because the stakes are high.  

“The human beings who animate our restaurants have far more impact on whether we succeed than any of the food ingredients we use, the décor of our dining rooms, the bottles of wine in our cellars, or even the location of the restaurants,” Danny notes.  

Hiring 51 percenters is a winning strategy. “Over the years, the most consistent compliment we’ve received and the one I am always proudest to hear is “I love your restaurants, and the food is fantastic. But what I really love is how great your people are.” 

More tomorrow.

______________________

Reflection: Think about my organization’s hiring criteria. Do we intentionally seek to hire people who demonstrate Emotional Intelligence?

Action: Discuss with my team or with a colleague. 

Sources:

Setting the Table: The Transforming Power of Hospitality in Business by Danny Meyer

Emotional Intelligence 2.0 by Dr. Travis Bradberry and Dr. Jean Greaves

What would you do?

1: Game time.  

A small art museum in Cincinnati, Ohio was preparing to launch a capital campaign. To succeed, they would need several major donors to step up and pledge six-figure gifts to create momentum.

“After months of extensive research and networking, the campaign director secured an initial meeting with a well-known banker,” writes Esther Choi in Let the Story Do the Work. The campaign director and the museum’s lead curator would have fifteen minutes to make their pitch.

“Thrilled and nervous, the lead curator wanted to be prepared as possible. So she drafted what she wanted to say, asked colleagues for feedback, invited the content manager to edit her ‘speech’, then rehearsed it over and over,” writes Esther.

Then, the morning of the meeting, the executive assistant called to say the banker would have only five minutes to meet with them.

What would you do now? How could you use the five minutes most effectively?

The museum curator decided to deliver her 15-minute talk in the allotted five minutes. Rather than cut it down or synthesize her remarks, she rushed through what she had to say.

What was missing? An emotional connection. The banker didn’t make a pledge.

2: “In a world where time is scarce, attention spans minuscule, and information abundant, how do we find a way to inform and influence others most effectively?” Esther asks.

The answer? Tell a story that packs a punch and delivers the “right” emotional impact.

Yesterday, we looked at Esther’s five types of business stories: Rebirth, Origin Story, Rags-to-Riches, Overcoming the Monster, and the Quest.

So, how do we decide which type of story to tell? Esther’s answer: Ask ourselves the critical question: “What do I hope to make the audience feel?”

Emotion plays a crucial role in our decision-making process. In his book Million Dollar Consulting, Alan Weiss notes, “Logic makes people think, emotion makes them act.”

The key to creating an emotional response is authenticity and understanding the change the protagonist undergoes. “Change is the soul of story. In each of the plots, the lead character experiences a transformation of some kind,” Esther notes. “How has the lead character (you, in many cases) or situation changed as a result of what happens in the story?” A good story reveals something genuine about the main character, which elicits emotion from the audience.

3: Each of the five plots Esther outlines has a unique emotional quality. She observes:

“A rebirth story is about redemption, a second chance to reverse a bad situation and evoke optimism.

“The origin story addresses the desire to connect the dots between past and present in an inspiring way.

“Rags to riches evokes empathy and gets audiences cheering for the down-on-their-luck main characters.

“Overcoming the monster stories can induce righteous anger and compel people to act to ward off a present or imminent threat.

“And a quest can provoke restlessness, the desire to achieve more than what life seems to promise.”

While the primary emotion differs in each of the five story types, one sentiment remains consistent: Hope.

As bestselling novelist Harlan Coben says: “Hope can crush your heart like an eggshell, or it can make it soar.”

More next week. Happy New Year!

______________________________

Reflection: Consider a topic about which I would like to persuade others. What emotion will they need to feel to agree with me?

Action: Experiment and reflect on what happens next.

Are there only five types of business stories?

1: In the early 1980s, Harley-Davidson, the once-iconic motorcycle company, had hit rock bottom. It was “an operation that looked like it was sinking into the sunset,” wrote an industry analyst at the time. 

“The legendary but antiquated bike had become the laughingstock of the industry,” reporter Scott Bieber noted.  

In 1987, Richard Teerlink became CEO. He initiated a substantial cultural shift and helped rebuild and rebrand Harley. “He understood that the core appeal of a Harley was not the machine itself,” writes Esther Choi in Let the Story do the Work. Instead, it was a “lifestyle, an emotional attachment. That’s what we have to keep marketing to,” Richard notes. 

Harley’s resurgence is an example of what Esther calls a “Rebirth” story, one of five types of business stories. “When it comes to business stories, I have found that there are really only Five Basic Plots,” she writes.

As an audience, what keeps us interested in a story can be reduced to one word: plot. “Plot is the sequence of events—and ideally twists, turns, and mysteries—in your story,” Esther writes. “It is up to us, as the storytellers, to organize these chaotic experiences into themes and a logical (but not predictable) order—the spine of story—which makes it easier for readers to follow, retain, and be influenced by the story.”

At the heart of Rebirth stories are the concept of redemption. “A rebirth story is about having a second chance. In business, this often takes the form of a turnaround,” she notes.  

2: The “Origin Story” is the second type of business story. As humans, we want to know how things started. “In business, an origin story might be a founder’s story, or how a person, business, idea, product, service, platform, movement, or opportunity came to be,” writes Esther.  

3: “Rags to Riches” is the third and most common type of business story. “Think about how many stories there are of self-made millionaires who came from humble backgrounds,” she notes. “The odds in such stories are never in favor of the main characters. . . They overcome seemingly insurmountable challenges, surviving many bumps and bruises along the way to arrive at an inspiring place.”

As audience members, we tell ourselves: if they can do it, I can, too!

A variation of the rags-to-riches narrative is the David-versus-Goliath story, otherwise known as the underdog story. “This plot is about someone who starts from a very low station in life, without much hope for improvement but surprises everyone with a dramatic turnaround,” Esther writes.

Oprah is a powerful example of rags to riches or the triumph of the underdog; Esther observes: “After a childhood of poverty and abuse, she moved to Nashville in her teens to live with her father, who provided direction and encouraged academic rigor, qualities that helped her find her way, set visionary goals, and become a business/media icon and philanthropist with a $3 billion fortune.”

4: The fourth type of business plot is “Overcoming the Monster.” Esther notes: “The monster in this kind of story can be any overt or covert entity or situation that can threaten survival of some sort or thwart someone from reaching an important goal.” 

Many times, an unsuspecting or reluctant character is pushed into action. “In the Bible, Moses ran away initially from God’s call for him to lead his people out of Egypt. In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker did not want to be bothered with taking on the evil empire until his family was murdered by Storm Troopers.

“Fighting to survive or thrive is elemental to human nature,” Esther notes. “So audiences of any type will root for defeat of the monster, whether at the hands of an individual, group, or organization, making this kind of story compelling in business and leadership stories.”

5: The fifth and final type of plot is called “The Quest.”

“Unlike stories of rags to riches, rebirth, and overcoming the monster, which typically start from a point at which the main character’s life is in bad shape, protagonists in quest stories tend to be enjoying a good life at the outset,” Esther writes.” But they are not content to sit at home. . . Instead, they know that somewhere, in a remote and possibly dangerous place, lies a prize of immeasurable value. Against their better judgment and his friends and family’s advice, the hero in this kind of story ventures out on a quest to claim this prize.”

Examples of Quest stories abound, including the Indiana Jones movie franchise. Our “intrepid archaeologist-adventurer played by Harrison Ford risks it all repeatedly to go after the lost Ark of the Covenant, a mystical stone, and the Holy Grail,” writes Esther.

Actual, real-life heroes on quests are often even more inspiring than their fictional counterparts. At the age of sixty-one, former astronaut and NASA climate scientist Piers Sellers was diagnosed with stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Doctors told him he would have about a year and a half left to live. Having received this terrible news, “instead of lamenting this turn of events or hanging out on a beach, Sellers chose to spend his last days finding ways to slow down climate change,” Esther writes.

More tomorrow.

___________________________

Reflection: Think about an upcoming presentation, meeting, or event. What type of story would most move my audience toward my goal?

Action: Re-frame the story I will tell into one of Esther’s five types of business stories.

How to listen aggressively

1: Perhaps you have a friend like Jane.

“She is funny and social, a talker who uses her eyes, face, hands, and voice to pull you in and keep you listening, no matter what the topic,” Esther Choi writes in her book Let the Story do the Work.

Jane is a great talker. Not so much when it comes to listening.

“The rare times when I’m doing more of the talking,” Esther writes, “I’ve noticed a pattern: Jane’s gaze wanders, and she rarely maintains eye contact; sometimes she bites her fingernails; often she finishes my sentences for me and/or interjects to tell her own story.”

The bottom line? When Jane is listening, “she doesn’t display the high level of focus and energy she radiates when she is talking,” Esther observes.

“It’s easy to imagine that Jane’s just not that interested in me or what I have to say. In reality, nothing can be farther from the truth. Jane does care about me—a lot. But I only know that from our history together, not because of the way she listens. And I don’t think she realizes that she sometimes gives off this impression of not caring.”

We learn from other people all the time. Sometimes we learn what not to do. To avoid showing up like Jane, Esther Choi suggests we “listen aggressively.”

2: We begin by thinking of ourselves as a film director, Esther suggests. As we listen, we create a motion picture in our heads. We imagine the person we are listening to has had an experience that can be turned into a blockbuster film. We guess what the setting looks like. If the speaker describes her cubicle, we could picture a cubicle farm right out of Dilbert, with her sitting there amidst her co-workers.

We do this exercise to keep our minds focused on what the person is saying.

We are curious. We remain open. “True listening is a function of being present to other people’s words and meaning,” advises storytelling advocate Annette Simmons, “even when, or especially when, their words or meaning might potentially disconfirm or destabilize your own.”

By asking clarifying questions, we demonstrate we care about what is being said and want to understand fully. We replay back what we’ve heard using our own words. If our paraphrasing suggests we didn’t quite understand, then the other party now has a chance to clarify. “In many situations, especially emotion-laden ones, there’s nothing more validating than hearing your thoughts, experiences, and feelings expressed in someone else’s voice,” Esther suggests.

We want to pay attention to our body language and avoid crossing our arms or legs, which communicates we are closed off or feeling defensive. “Professional counselors recognize clients shut down if they perceive the therapist as judgmental, whether as the result of verbal or nonverbal responses,” Esther writes. “So the best way to show support and engagement is to really try to feel what [the other party] feels. . . It works best when you truly feel the emotion you are expressing. But even basic mirroring, in gestures and words, can be powerful.”

3: While listening, it’s natural for our own stories to come to mind. “But try to resist the temptation to interject,” Esther writes. “The spotlight should remain on the audience, not you.”

We listen not only with our ears but with our eyes and with our hearts. Our gaze is particularly important. We want to maintain eye contact without giving the impression we are “staring them down,” Esther writes. One tactic is to alternate our focus between the speaker and nearby empty space.

“For every one part talking, do three parts listening,” recommends retired Northwestern University communications professor Paul Arntson.

More tomorrow.

_________________

Reflection: Am I a good listener?

Action: Listen aggressively to a friend or colleague this week by experimenting with some of Esther’s ideas.

How to ask “Crazy Good Questions”

It is the holiday season. This week many of us will have the opportunity to reconnect with family and friends we don’t get to talk with all that often.

Option one: Have a version of the same conversation we have every year. What’s wrong with the [___] (fill in the name of favorite sports team)? What did you think of [___] (fill in the name of recent TV series)? Tell me about your trip to [___] (fill in the name of a recent excursion)?

Option two: Actually learn something about this person in your life that is new, fun, and interesting. The secret? Ask what Esther Choi calls “crazy good questions.” In her book Let the Story do the Work, she outlines different types of questions we might ask.

1: Greatest questions:
What is your greatest [___]? When are you the most [___]? What or who gives you the most [___]?

2: Meaning questions:
What does [___] mean to you? What do you make of [___]?

3: Takeaway or Surprise questions:
What are your takeaways from [___]? What has surprised you the most about [___]? What didn’t you know about [___], but wish you did?

4: The Self questions:
How has [___] experience impacted you? How do you feel about [___]?

5: Different Path questions:
How would [___] be different if you didn’t [___]? If you were to take on the role of [___], how would you handle [___] differently? If you could have any item on your [___] wish list fulfilled, what might those be?

6: Compare and Contrast questions:
What parallels do you see between [___] and [___]? How is [___] different from [___]?

7: Origin questions:
How did [___] begin? What motivated you to [___]? How did people react to your [___] in the beginning?

The final question works wonderfully as a follow-up to all the questions above.
And what else? Or, tell me more about [___].

We live in a world that is defined by the questions we ask. To create a new world, ask a new question.

More tomorrow.

________________

Reflection: Do the questions I ask allow me to learn something new and deepen my relationships?

Action: Track my question-to-statement ratio over the next week.

What was the most important day of Martin Luther King Jr.’s life and why?

1: The phone rang around midnight as Martin Luther King Jr. was getting ready for bed.  

It was January 27th, 1956, “the most important night of his life,” says Martin’s Pulitzer-winning biographer, David Garrow, “the one he would always think back to in future years when the pressures again seemed too great.”

The man on the other end of the phone called Martin the N-word and told him, “We are tired of you and your mess now. And if you aren’t out of this town in three days, we’re going to blow your brains out and blow up your house.”

The house was quiet. Martin’s wife Coretta and his newborn baby daughter Yolanda were already asleep. “I felt myself faltering and growing in fear,” he said later.  

The night before, a pair of police motorcycles had tailed Martin, write Raymond Kethledge and Michael Erwin in Lead Yourself First.  When he slowed down, the motorcycles continued to follow. When he stopped to let out some passengers, one of the officers pulled up next to the driver’s window. “Get out, King,” the officer said. “You’re under arrest for speeding 30 miles an hour in a 25-mile zone.  

The police officers put Martin in the backseat. They said nothing as they drove through unfamiliar, desolate parts of town. Martin silently began to panic, “literally trembling in the backseat, seized with fear that he was about to be lynched,” the authors write. “Eventually they approached a building with a neon sign outside: MONTGOMERY CITY JAIL. Inside, he was led toward a large cell filled with common criminals.”

Martin was released later that night, but the pressures on him were immense and intensely personal. He was subject to a “citywide rumor campaign” with white citizens telling black acquaintances Martin was an ambitious, “highfalutin preacher” who had never ridden a bus himself.

2: Now, “fearful and unable to sleep, he went to the kitchen, made a cup of coffee, and sat down at the table to reflect,” the authors write.  He had received death threats before, “but this time something broke loose inside him. . .  I started thinking about many things,” Martin said later. “I was ready to give up.”  

“I sat there and thought about a beautiful little daughter who had just been born.… I’d come in night after night and see that little gentle smile. And I sat at that table thinking about that little girl and thinking about the fact that she could be taken away from me any minute. And I started thinking about a dedicated, devoted, and loyal wife who was over there asleep. And she could be taken from me, or I could be taken from her. And I got to the point that I couldn’t take it any longer. I was weak,” Martin recalled.

Martin realized he needed to draw more deeply upon his faith than ever before: “And I discovered then that religion had become real to me, and I had to know God for myself. And I bowed down over that cup of coffee. I will never forget it … I prayed a prayer, and I prayed out loud that night. I said, “Lord, I’m down here trying to do what’s right. I think I’m right. I think the cause that we represent is right. But Lord, I must confess that I’m weak now. I’m faltering. I’m losing my courage. And I can’t let the people see me like this because if they see me weak and losing my courage, they will begin to get weak.”

Then Martin received an answer:

“And it seemed at that moment that I could hear an inner voice saying to me, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness. Stand up for justice. Stand up for truth. And lo I will be with you, even until the end of the world’… I heard the voice of Jesus saying still to fight on. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone. No, never alone. No, never alone. He promised never to leave me, never to leave me alone.

“Almost at once,” Martin said later, “my fears began to go. My uncertainty disappeared.”

He would never fear bombings or other harm again.  

3: Three days later, on the night of January 30th, Coretta and a friend were sitting in the King’s home when they heard something heavy land on the porch outside. They darted toward a guest bedroom as “an explosion rocked the house, filling the front room with smoke and shattered glass.” They were not harmed.

Reflecting later, Martin recalled he “accepted the word of the bombing calmly. My religious experience a few nights before had given me the strength to face it.”

“Exactly one year after his experience at the kitchen table,” Raymond and Michael write, “another stack of dynamite landed on the porch of his home. The fuse was defective, and the bomb did not explode. In his sermon the next morning, a Sunday, [Martin] again described his religious experience a year earlier and said, “So I’m not afraid of anybody this morning. Tell Montgomery they can keep shooting, and I’m going to stand up to them; tell Montgomery they can keep bombing, and I’m going to stand up to them.”

Martin spoke of his sense that he would be killed one day. “Because of his experience at the kitchen table, however, he faced that prospect without fear. And though King did not speak of it directly, he was surely aware of a scriptural parallel to his own experience. In the Book of Exodus, God speaks to Moses through the burning bush and orders him to return to Egypt and lead his people to freedom. Moses reacts with self-doubt: “Who am I, that I should go unto Pharaoh, and that I should bring forth the children of Israel out of Egypt? God responds, “Certainly I will be with thee” (Exodus 3:11-12).”

Martin had been told the same thing. “Black Americans have long identified with the Israelites of the Old Testament, who were persecuted by the pharaoh,” note Raymond and Michael. “After Moses leads the Israelites out of Egypt, they wander the desert for forty years. Finally, God tells Moses to ‘get thee up this mountain,’ from whose top God says he will allow Moses to see the Promised Land. And God says he will give this land ‘unto the children of Israel for a possession’ (Deuteronomy 32:48–49). But God will not let Moses himself go there; instead, God says, Moses will die on the mountain. Moses then climbs up the mountain, sees the Promised Land, and dies.

On April 3rd, 1968, Martin concluded the final speech of his life in this way:

“Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain, and I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And so I’m happy tonight. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”

Raymond and Michael write: Martin’s “sense from his experience at the kitchen table, that the Lord was with him each step of the way had grown into a deeper sense that, as with Moses, the Lord himself would decide when his work was done.  And the following morning, it was.”